Monday, 18 July 2011

Hills, Rains and Birds

Over the years, I have come to think that there are two kinds of travellers. The first kind like to travel at impulse. Friday afternoon is not too late for them to take a trip over the weekend. They believe in minimizing the journey time. They are open to the idea of looking out for a hotel after reaching the place. More often that not, they swear by a long list of sightseeing activities that are required to be done to make the vacation a success. The second kind are the laid-back kind. They like to travel even when they are not traveling by engaging themselves in planning the trip. They are not in a hurry to reach the destination – the leisurely journey is as much a part of the vacation as the actual holiday destination in. They take time in knowing about the accommodation choices the place offers and they like to book well in advance. They are okay with doing nothing or have a select few activities as part of the vacations. Mind you, the two are as different as salt and sugar. Instinctively, we all know which category we belong to. And if you ever happen to travel with the other kind, you will be surprised at how completely different a vacation to the same place and same time can turn out to be. My family belongs to the second category and we are the laid-back vacationers.

Our trip to Goa finished in May end and the kids were still left with 6 weeks of summer vacations. My husband suggested we take a second short vacation to Shimla in June. Shimla, capital of Himachal Pradesh, popularly known as 'the queen of hills', is around 350 kilometres from Delhi. There are various options for traveling from Delhi/NCR. You can fly all the way. You can drive (or hire a car so that someone else does the driving), this would take you anything between 7 to 9 hours. You could opt to take a train up to Kalka and then hire a car for the remaining hundred kilometres or so. This would also take you a total of around 9 hours to reach Shimla. The third option is to take a take a train to Kalka and then connect to narrow gauge toy-train to Shimla. The last option is the longest but a rather scenic and pleasant one. But this would mean planning a trip well-in-advance for booking the trains, especially if you are traveling in the peak season (May-June).

As I said, we are the laid-back vacationers. We like to plan the trip, book the trains even if it means a month in advance and consider the journey to be as much a part of the vacation as the stay at the destination. May-June is the peak season for Shimla, no train tickets were available until the 28th of June. So the train tickets were booked. With this also began our virtual travelling – net surfing and reading the reviews of the place, finding out about the places close-by, checking out the local weather and finally deciding on the exact location and the hotel. Having stayed in Chail and Shimla in our earlier trips, it was time to explore a different place away from the city. Our two kids (3.5 years and 9.5 years) tend to have motion sickness traveling on the twisty roads of the hills. Keeping that in mind, we decided to be within 30 kilometres radius of Shimla. Naldehra and Fagu emerged as the best two options. Unfortunately the rains in Shimla had arrived early this year and end-June appeared to be more like the beginning of the off-season period. We were checking on the weather sites everyday to view the rain situation. With every passing day, it appeared that the entire trip could be a wash-out. Shall we proceed or shall we cancel the reservations?And then we thought if the choice was to sit and watch the rains either at the hills or at Gurgaon, it was a no-brainer. After some initial debate, we finalized for Fagu and booked the HPTDC Apple Blossom on-line. This hotel was earlier known as Peach Blossom and was re-named to Apple Blossom in the year 2010. By the time we closed the matter, their top room Blossom Suite was available only for the first night. For the other two nights, we had to settle for their second best option, which was their super deluxe bedroom.

We packed a couple of light woolens for ourselves and the warm inner-wear and jackets for the kids . The Howrah-Kalka mail was late by 2.5 hours on that day but made up for the delay in the night and it arrived at 5:10 am, instead of its scheduled time of 4:45 am. We reached Kalka – a cute little station, different from the big-crowded, noisy and messy stations of Delhi. Cuter than the station, there stood the majestic bright red toy train Shivalik Deluxe. This was not our first travel by this train, however it has sustained the charm in our minds. The Kalka -Shimla railway is a narrow gauge railway and is listed in the UNESCO world heritage site 'Mountain Railways of India'. The other two listed in the site are the Darjeeling Himalayan railway and the Nilgiri mountain railway. The train connects Kalka, which is at a height of 656 m above sea-level to Shimla which is 2076 m above sea level. This train travels along a mostly mountainous route and passes through 102 tunnels on the way. The longest tunnel is at Barog and it is more than a kilometre long. A tragic story suggests that the Barog station is named after an engineer by the name Barog who had committed a mistake of digging a tunnel from both ends of the hill. When the two ends could not be aligned, he was penalized by the British authorities for his mistake. The engineer could not bear the humiliation and committed suicide.

Toy Train
The toy train takes around 5 hours to cover a distance of 96 kilometres. The train speed varies from 10 to 25 Km/hour. There is a talk of the railway being keen on increasing the speed to 45 km/hr, which would decrease the journey time to 3 hours. The fare for the Shivalik Deluxe is around Rs 300 either side. The seats are comfortable but not very spacious and my husband did a smart thing by reserving a separate seat for my 3.5 year old son. The interesting part is that the seats are reversible. There is a toilet in every coach. The rail-car which is a single compartment toy-train does not have a toilet and this could become an issue while travelling with kids. There is a provision for small attached fold-able tables for having meals. Tea was served at Kalka station and breakfast was served at Barog. For the breakfast, there is a choice between omelette and vegetable cutlets. The potato cutlets at Barog are really tasty and we even remembered them from our last trip. Travelling in air-conditioned compartments of trains has taken away the fun of sitting beside open windows. Here we sat beside open windows, had a chat with fellow passengers and could occasionally get down at a station to pick a food item like cutlets, juices or even unexpected stuff like cherry plums. As the train climbed upward, the air got cooler and cooler. An important tip to remember is that the valley falls on the right side of the train. A few birds sitting on the tree-tops and the telephone wires caught my attention. Having recently taken to bird-watching, I was trying to identify them. That is when I realized that I had left my reference book at home. The train reached Shimla at 11:15 am. The children were already wearing their jackets by this time and I wrapped myself in a shawl too.

 If Kalka station was small and cute, Shimla station was smaller and even cuter. I went to the information desk and checked if they had any book on birding. Quite unexpectedly and fortunately, they had one on birds of the Kangra by Jan Willem den Besten and I immediately purchased it. The gentlemen at the desk gave me complimentary copies of the Himachal Tourism magazine 'Monal'. There was a picture of the monal bird on it, which looked interesting.

We hired a cab to go to Fagu. For a distance of 22 kilometres, the fare of Rs 800 looked on the higher side but possibility of negotiations looked lean. It took us around an hour on the Hindustan-Tibet road (National Highway 22) to reach Fagu. On the way, we passed Kufri. We stopped on the roadside to pick a few bhuttas (roasted corn). I am a bit skeptical about the government run hotels and kept my fingers crossed till we reached the place. As we reached the place, I immediately developed a liking for it. The combination of white and green colours on the exterior looked neat. The check in process was smooth and immediately we were escorted to the room number 405 – the Blossom suite. What strikes you first is the sheer size of the room. It was really big and spacious. With two comfortable beds, side tables, sofa chairs, built in ward-robe and TV in place, there was still a lot of floor space. The bathroom was big and clean. The most attractive part was the setting of the four sofa chairs against the long window overlooking the valley and layers after layers of hills and mountains. For a moment, I was speechless.  The views were simply magnificent. At that moment itself, I guess I fell in love with Fagu. I was ready to overlook a few faults and shortcomings like the worn-out carpet in the room.

HPTDC Apple Blossom
I spent a good deal of time just sitting near the window looking at the un-commercialized raw nature, which was very appealing. There was a small school close-by. Little children adorned in school uniforms – some running and others walking at a leisurely place. They wore full-sleeves sweaters and long pants. We could see the apple orchards and a few small houses. We looked at a big field where a man was diligently digging the soil and sowing what appeared like cabbages. My daughter immediately commented 'Step farming'. I was not sure if that was the correct technical term but it seemed appropriate. I checked later that the technical term for this is 'terrace farming'. Graduated terrace steps are used to farm on hilly or mountainous terrain, giving a stepped appearance. Crop cultivation in hills is not an easy affair and the state of Himachal is deficit in food grains. But the state boasts in the production of potato, ginger, mushrooms, olives and figs etc. The state also abounds in fruit cultivation, which does not add to the problem of soil erosion. Apples yield the maximum income for the state. This is the reason why Himachal is called the 'Apple State of India'.

In the evening, we went out to explore the hotel surroundings. There is a temple close-by, which is quite a climb. There is a well defined path with comfortable stairs, only they are too many. There are marked rest-areas on the way. Me and my husband began the climb with a lot of enthusiasm. We had not gone too far before our bodies showed their current forms. Having been out of exercise was quite evident, every 20-30 steps, we would stop for a minute on the pretext of looking at the views but in reality to catch our breaths. We saw many slugs on the way – some were really big and healthy but slow as usual. Around mid-way of the climb, we reached the 'Snow King Retreat' hotel. Technically, situated at a higher altitude, it should promise better views. However, I was not impressed with the ambience of the place. The HPTDC Apple Blossoms has big open lawns in front of the hotel, which was missing in this hotel and it had a congested look. In addition, the access to Apple Blossoms is easier and shorter. After a short stop-over to look at the resort, we resumed the climb. The temple was at a height of 2600 metres and the views from up there were excellent. It is a Maa Kali temple – small, cute and operational. We were given prasad by the priest in the temple. The downward climb was a 'piece of cake' in comparison. Our tired legs were delighted to reach the comforts of the hotel room. As I resumed my sofa seat and looked out, I felt I was seeing many more layers of mountains compared to what I saw in the afternoon. I called my husband to take a look. He looked and screamed excitedly "That is the Kinnaur Kailash". His enthusiasm rubbed on me and for the next fifteen minutes, we kept looking at the range, sometimes through naked eyes and sometimes through my 8x40 binoculars. Through the binoculars, we could see the snow on the mountains. A staff member confirmed for us that it was the Kinnaur Kailash indeed. He also pointed us to look at the Churdhar peak. I told my husband "The next 2 days may be a wash-out but we can consider the trip made already".

The next morning was cloudy. The entire place was filled with complete mist and fog. It appeared as if the whole open space had constricted and that no valleys or mountains even existed. The previous night we had checked out the best super deluxe rooms in the hotel – they were room 401 and room 303. The hotel was entirely booked in the first two days, but we were lucky to have been allocated room 303. The room, smaller than the suite, was still quite spacious and comfortable. A corner room with two windows, giving us an additional view of the hotel lawns. It rained on and off the whole day and there was not much to do, except watch the rains. The children were glued to the Cbeebies on the TV. By evening, I was feeling so sick of the fog that I wanted to rename the place to 'Fog-u'. Desperate to get out of the hotel, we made use of a short break in the rain to check out the local shops. There are quiet a few shops, which can meet the daily needs of the locals there. One of the sweet shops even arranges for a taxi for sightseeing/dropping to railway station. It began to pour heavily and we took shelter in a shop there. The shop-keeper was a middle aged man and we got talking. He did not appear enthusiastic about the climate of the place and told us 'We wear sweaters all year round. May-June is the warmest period for us, which means we wear only one sweater in this month. We need hot geyser water for bath all year around" He also told us that he had bought a second house in Chandigarh and his family shifts the household to Chandigarh when the winter in Shimla/Fagu becomes severe. Isn't it strange that when people from Delhi would hear about snowfall in Shimla and pack their bags to come here for skiing, there would be local families shifting to Chandigarh to avoid the severe climate and the hassles cause by snowfall?

The weather in the hills is strange. One moment, it would be rainy and foggy and a few minutes later, the skies will start clearing out. One good thing with the sloped roads was that in spite of the continuous rains, there was no water-clogging issues. By late evening, the skies were so clear that we could see the stars. 'We may be able to catch a view of the Kinnaur Kailash next morning" my husband said before we went to bed. He was right. We got a good view of the range at around 5 am next morning. We could not see the snow, but the outlines were very clear. After the sun-rise, the views became hazy again. I decided to go for an early morning walk for birding. Our current room was on the first floor and it was great for observing birds. At the first sight, the common birds appeared very similar to the Gurgaon birds, but a closer look brought the differences out. For instance, the jungle crow looks quite similar to our house crow. Take a close look, its neck and breast region are not grey but completely black and it has a larger beak. The Jungle crow is sometimes also known by the name 'Large billed crow' or 'Thick billed crow'. Their call is similar but the voice is much deeper and louder. Talk about the other common bird,the bulbul.The common bulbul we see in Gurgaon is the 'red-vented' bulbul. That means, you will see a red color patch under its body. The Himalayan bulbul has a yellow vent. It has white cheeks and predominant crest on the head. It looks healthier in comparison to the ones in Gurgaon. Then there were these birds which looked similar to house sparrows – but they had a reddish-brown colour on their crown and on their back. They were actually Russet Sparrows. In my birding walk, I saw a few more birds which I have not seen in Gurgaon. In the quiet of the morning, I followed the sounds of different birds. There was this bird with a very distinct voice with a sweet whistle when it ended the call. It was a small grey-black bird with white under-parts and white lines close to the eyebrows. It was a male grey bushchat. The female is brown and white. Another very good looking bird we saw was a Tit – a green backed tit. It was a beautiful combination of olive green, blue, black and white. It has a black head, white cheeks, black throat, green body and wings with blue, black and white colours. I also happened to spot a hoopoe, which is considered a common bird. But I saw it for the first time in wild and I was thrilled to see its beauty – interesting crown, long beak and zebra-patterned wings. Another common visitor in the lawns was the rock bunting which also had a sweet 'sweep sweep' call. The bird has some similarities to a sparrow but it is bigger and has a longer tail. The male has chestnut upper parts and a striking head which has black stripes. I also liked the sound of the streaked laughing thrush. It is a very musical bird and I heard at least two completely different calls made by the same bird. Its size is of the order of common mynah, appearance dull brown in colour and has red-brown colour on it cheeks and in the wings. If the birds in Himachal looked healthier, the butterflies looked much bigger than the ones at Gurgaon. I heard my daughter tell her grandmother on phone 'I saw a butterfly which was green, blue, orange and black. And it was as big as my hand'.

The day was partly cloudy. We hired a taxi to go to Kufri to make use of the break from rain. Kufri is popular for its horse and yak rides to the scenic spots. There was an amazingly large number of horses standing there. None of us were inclined to go for the horse ride. Instead we were keen on checking out the zoo first. After all, we could not predict how much time the rain gods would permit us. The Kufri zoo, called 'Himalayan Nature Park' is much smaller than the Delhi zoo. There aren't too many animals but I liked the way the place is arranged. It appeared like a visit to a forest lined with large trees including oak, pine, spruce and deodar trees. We saw various kind of deer, bears, leopard and snow leopard. Snow leopard is the state animal of Himachal. It is an endangered species. There were two birds in their pheasantry which grabbed my attention completely. One was the Himalayan Monal. Standing proudly, the male monal looked like a riot of colours. Apparently it has nine colours on its body. The female looked dull in comparison. Himalayan Monal is the national bird of Nepal and is the state bird of Uttarakhand. It used to be the state bird of HP too but since 2007 it has been changed to Western Tragopan. This was the second interesting looking bird I mentioned above. Both the birds are pretty big in size. Monal is about 70 cm in length and Tragopan male is around 55-60 cm. The Western Tragopan is again a very unique combination of colours. The male is large bright coloured with black crown, blue throat, red face and the body is black with numerous white spots, each spot bordered with black and deep crimson patches. The Western Traogpan is considered the rarest of all living pheasants and the entire world population is estimated at less than 5000 individuals. There are 19 of these rare birds in captivity at the breeding centre in Sarahan Aviary, 160 Km from Shimla, however the bird were infected with e-coli last year and the authorities have given them rest from breeding this year. Last season, the birds had laid 17 fertilized eggs, of which only one hatched, but the chick died within a week. The government has put in a lot of funding for conservation plan for this bird. Regular hunting for its bright plumage has lead to a near extinction state of this bird. What a price to be paid for the beauty, I wondered.

Before leaving Kufri, we picked a lot of fresh fruits – apricots, plums, apples and nectarines. They were lovely fruits. The shopkeeper sold the nectarine as a 'three-in-one' fruit, one with a taste of peach, plum and apple. The nectarines were simply luscious – good looking and very tasty. Nectarines are erroneously believed to be a cross-breed between peaches and plums, but they actually belong to the same species as peaches. They are often referred to as "shaved peaches" due to their lack of fuzz or short hairs. I was left with no wonder why Himachal is called the 'fruit bowl' of our country.

The day we had to return, was especially sunny and bright. The views were clearing out layer by layer. I could see a few eagles in the sky through my binoculars. The weather was lovely, I removed my sweater and the shawl. I went for my morning walk passing the apple orchards on the way. The apples were mostly green, though some were partly pink. Once the apples would get ripe and become red in colour, the orchards would be quite a sight. But for us, it was time to say goodbye to the place. At some level, I felt cheated to be leaving on the brightest day of our stay. Ironically, at checkout, the manager gave us a discount for the last night as the official off-season had started from July 1. We requested the manager to pack some food for us which they gladly did. Leaving the place was very difficult for me, a part of me wanted to stay on and extend the vacation. My husband had to literally push me out of the hotel.

Train travel had a special advantage that even when the hotel stay had ended, there was still a part of the vacation left - the leisurely scenic travel. At Shimla station, we picked up HPMC Apple Jam. We opened it in the train itself and used it with the parathas. The jam was amazingly different in colour as well as taste from the apple jams I have been eating so far. Sitting by the window side, I enjoyed the beautiful scenery pass-by. My soul was internally aware of the gradual rejuvenation it had gone through in the last four days. The fresh air, the open space, the hills and the valleys, the birds, butterflies and the animals, the nectarines and the plums – all the colours and flavours of Himachal had truly reinvigorated my mind and soul.

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